Lebanon seeks support for troop withdrawal plan despite Syria's rejection
Beirut, Lebanon — The Lebanese, Americans, and Israelis are determined to move ahead with negotiations on troop withdrawals from Lebanon, despite Syria's rejection of the pullout plan.
The efforts come at a time of increased concern about a new war in the Middle East.
After 10 hours of talks between Lebanese and Syrian officials in Damascus that led to Syria's rejection of the accord ''in form and in substance,'' the Lebanese responded with a series of moves:
* Lebanese Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan announced that a new ''working team'' would be appointed to intensify efforts to resolve Syrian objections.
* Lebanese President Amin Gemayel dispatched envoys to the Arab world to rally support for the agreement, which is expected to be formally initialed on Tuesday.
* The Lebanese Cabinet gave the draft unanimous approval, and moved to put it before Parliament Monday to win maximum consensus even though parliamentary approval is not necessary under current emergency power regulations.
* Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salam indirectly challenged the Syrians to come up with a better means of ensuring Israeli withdrawal.
Despite Syria's emphatic words, the Lebanese are not taking rejection of the pullout plan as Syria's final position. Dr. Salam said after talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad and Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam that he was ''not surprised'' by their initial verdict.
The Lebanese are taking the position that there is no alternative to the agreement. Dr. Salam was quoted as saying: ''If anyone has an alternative, let him show us what it is. If anybody wants to use force to get Israel out, let him come forth.''
He added: ''Show me any country which is prepared to get the Israelis out without a peace agreement. We refuse to become a just cause in the lobbies of the UN or turn into a dispersed people.''
Yet Western diplomats close to the talks concede the Syrian rejection leaves little room for maneuvering. President Assad said the pact ''undermines the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, imposes Israeli domination on it, destroys Lebanon's Arab commitments, and prejudices the security of Syria and the Arab countries.''
Although the Lebanese have taken steps to salvage the pact - which now hangs on Syria's decision on withdrawal of its 40,000 troops - Lebanese officials concede in private that US intervention may be necessary to avoid further deterioration of the situation.
One of the most discouraging factors is the apparent unwillingness of moderate Arabs to come to Lebanon's aid. Saudi Arabia's ambivalent position was most notable.
US sources claim that Saudi Arabia's King Fahd originally welcomed the agreement during talks with Secretary of State George Shultz. However, they note that the Saudi monarch also made it clear that the security and solidarity of the Arab world were more important than this agreement.
At a Saudi-Syrian summit last week in Jiddah, the Syrian leadership reportedly suggested to the Saudis that any Arab regime that backed an accord giving Israel ''an advantage'' in Lebanon would face serious political repercussions at home. This has long been one of the reasons for Arab reluctance to enter into peace talks with Israel.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has endorsed the plan. But Egypt has had little clout in the Arab world since it signed the Camp David peace pact.
Diplomats in the region claim that other moderate states, including Jordan, are annoyed about poor US timing and tactics. For eight months, the US focused on winning Israeli agreement and all but ignored Syria, which is equally crucial to success. The envoys feel any eventual backing by other Arab states will be tied more to fear of the alternatives than to support for the terms.
Representatives of the key parties say timing is now the key. If Phase 2 with Syria is allowed to drag on as long as Phase 1 with Israel, there is strong feeling that the process will crumble completely. That could lead to the Syrians and Israelis either de facto partitioning the areas of Lebanon they now occupy or fighting it out.
(Reuters quotes Lebanese officials as saying Israel has warned it will nullify the withdrawal accord if Syria does not pull out before a deadline Israel will set later.)
The atmosphere of the region has already started turning against peace. Well-placed Arab sources claim three battalions from the Palestine Liberation Army and the PLO guerrilla forces have been dispatched into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
There also are uncomfirmed reports that PLO chief Yasser Arafat met with his troops there over the weekend, his first visit to Lebanon since the Palestinian evacuation last September. If true, that will certainly be interpreted by all other parties in the region as a provocative action, and a violation of the spirit of the first US plan, which ended the siege of Beirut last summer. In Damascus, Mr. Arafat was quoted by the Palestine News Agency as saying that war was the only way to change the uneven balance of power in the region.